Heartbreak and Anger, Poland

We are never sure what each day will bring on the Polish Ukrainian border. Sometimes the Ukrainians crossing to the safety of Poland come in steady groups, their wheeled suitcases rumbling on the pavers as they make their way past our stall. We call out ‘Chai, kava, kakao (tea, coffee, cocoa)’, and some come over, thankful for a hot drink after a long, cold wait to cross the border. Other days are quiet, with volunteers and NGO staff outnumbering the displaced Ukrainians. We theorise why, trading rumours and stories we have heard about border closures, missile strikes and humanitarian corridors.

Little kids with pink cheeks, rugged up in their winter woolies, toddle beside their parents. A hot chocolate, juice box or chocolate egg brings a shy smile and a quiet ‘dyakuyu‘ or ‘spasiba (thankyou)’. On some cold mornings I keep a little soft toy tucked in the top of my jacket, its furry face peeking out between the lapels. When a suitably-aged child passes by, I crouch beside them, furrow my brow in mock concentration, and search inside the top of my jacket for the toy. Then I pull out the furry friend, the little one’s face lights up, and I pass it to their outstretched hand. The Mum thanks me, I reply ‘Budlaska (you’re welcome)’, the family heads off towards the waiting buses, and my eyes well with tears.

So many children on a journey which, for many, has no known destination. Also unknown is when they will return to Ukraine, and if they will see their fathers and uncles – who are required to stay and defend the nation – again. We are reminded of this tragedy with every child passing our stall. Although only witnesses, it breaks out hearts.

Some families include a grandparent. Some walk with strength and a steady gait, others with walking sticks, and a few are pushed in wheelchairs. Occasionally a trolley bed, staffed by paramedics, will bring an old person down the path, lying under blankets to ward off the cold. Some fled their homes as children during World War Two, and now, at the other end of their lives, they are refugees once again.

Watching the procession of older Ukrainians, my sadness gives way to anger. Fist-clenching, jaw-locking anger. How dare the Russians force these old people from their homes? They have lived long lives, and have no doubt worked hard, raised families, and contributed to their communities. The actions of Putin and the Russian state have denied these senior Ukrainians their right to live peacefully in their home towns, surrounded by family and friends. It is an unconscionable outrage.

We may not be able to predict how many Ukrainians will come through the border each day, but a shift at our charity stall is guaranteed to bring big emotional swings. Light-hearted moments with colleagues, or the sight of a kid’s face cheered by a hot chocolate topped with a blob of whipped cream, give way to recurring bouts of heartbreak and anger at the utter wretchedness of the whole situation.

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